Throughout the early history of storytelling, the antagonist has existed as a plot device, to which Bulman defined as a character that ‘usually represents negative things, while the protagonist espouses positive values. ‘ (Bulman, 2006, 17). He goes on to expand on the device’s use of conflict and how it is a necessary building block of creative storytelling. This analysis will explore the state of existence of the female antagonist, who has long been argued to be held in a transgressive state of bondage compared to the male.
A woman who – as Mallan infers – is ‘largely drawn from literary and cultural stereotypes (e. the witch and the evil woman who lures, controls, and conspires). ‘ (Mallan, 2000, 26-35) and a woman who – when compared to the male – may act in such a way ‘by nature or by choice. ‘ (TVTropes, 2012). Arguments like this suggest that she is built upon harmful and restrictive stereotypes that have been enforced by societal expectations of gender during the eras of production. However, with the ever changing public attitudes and perhaps more feminist-influenced culture, how has the ‘problematic’ female character changed over animated history?
Defining a female antagonist’s characteristics within a role is ften separated into more defined stereotypes, ones usually created in part of the society’s omnipresent assumptions of gender roles. Rigorously seen during Disney’s ‘Golden Age’ of the 1930’s and towards the beginning of the ‘Renaissance’ period of the 1990’s, the relationship between the female protagonist and antagonist are created through the lens of Disney’s matriarchal figures.
As Bell notes, The teenaged heroine at the idealized height of puberty’s graceful promenade is individuated in Snow White, Cinderella, Princess Aurora, Ariel, and Belle. (Bell, 1995, 108), in addition to further comments that ‘Female wickedness embodied in Snow White’s stepmother, Lady Tremaine, Maleficent, and Ursula-is rendered as middle-aged beauty at its peak of sexuality and authority. (ibid. , 1995). This is certainly true when considering the overall age of early voice actresses from early Disney features, such as Cinderella (1950)’s 18-year- old llene Woods, in comparison to that of Eleanor Audley’s Lady Tremaine, who also went on to play Maleficent in the later Sleeping Beauty (1959), in addition to Maleficent (who will be discussed later in this essay).
Tremaine, after the passing of Cinderella’s father, begins to abuse her on the grounds of being . jealous of Cinderella’s charm and beauty. ‘ (Cinderella, 1950). Nevertheless, what is curious within early Disney features is the distinct lack of the caring, maternal figures, being either powerless to assist the protagonist. It is not the mother who is the Antagonist – a person whom society dictates’.. are always there for their children.. ‘ (Ridgeway. , Correll. , 2004, 9). Instead, we see that she is replaced by a fouler figure, one that is described by Basinger as the ‘Destructive Mother’.
The ones who are either ‘interfering in their children’s love lives or in their careers. ‘ (Basinger, 1993). Likewise, this insidious mother figure recurs later in the Disney canon, with Mother Gothel’s more apparent and frighteningly noticeable emotionally abusive characteristics in Disney’s feature Tangled (2010), who will be discussed later in this analysis. On the other hand, Maleficent is a curious example of one of Disney’s early female antagonists that can be argued for having agency as a villain without having to rely on stereotyping.
Davis comments that ‘Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of villainesses in this era of Disney films is the much higher proportion of agency they show compared to that of their victims. (Davis, 2006, 107). They are given agency to act upon their desires freely, in addition to not having to resort their character to a heavy backstory to excuse their antagonistic nature or soften to become more appealing to the audience. In Sleeping Beauty (1959), Maleficent’s motivations for evil begin when she is seemingly left out of the invitations to the christening of the young Princess Aurora, cursing her to die on her 16th birthday.
Juneau writes that Maleficent’s ‘… petty excuse for villainy just adds to her evilness — that she could be so cruel for such a small infraction. ‘ (Juneau, 2012) This is certainly true, s she resorts to attempted murder for such a slight mistake; She is seen as jealous of being uninvited, and thus acts out her revenge upon an innocent. Comparatively, in Maleficent (2014), her initial jealousy had turned into revenge for having her wings cruelly removed by someone she trusted, which during the time of release many sources interpreted as a metaphor for sexual assault, a metaphor in which ‘.. oo many adults in the audience will have had the experience to be able to apply it. (basilmarinerchase, 2014).
However, such metaphors are not uncommon throughout early fairy tales, and Doyle comments urther that .. the prediction that, on her sixteenth birthday, the beautiful princess shall “prick her finger” on a spindle and fall into a “sleep like death”-is a rape allegory, one of those wild and eerie and inappropriate bits of dream imagery that give fairy tales their enduring power. (Doyle, 2014) It is therefore such a step forward in character from a story Anderson would call ‘peopled by characters who can seem decidedly one dimensional. ‘ (Anderson, 2014). Maleficent (2014) presents an ‘antagonist that is perhaps not necessarily ‘neutered’ in any way, but is also expanded upon in a context that remains ncomfortably familiar with the original telling; one straying far away from the motivation that Juneau describes as something ‘.. only high-schoolers would stew over. ‘ (Juneau, 2012. ).
Jealousy – and the overall themes of obsessiveness and feminine hysteria – has been a key component in the creation of Disney’s villainous women ever since the outset of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), ranging from the Evil Queen’s purely jealous-driven motivations to the venomous and vengeful Zira of The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride (1998). However, one of the more prominent and recognisable forms of obsession is the ‘sea itch’ Ursula from The Little Mermaid (1989). Ursula is an exemplary case of the ‘female grotesque’, someone which Mallan describes as’. like Cruella, is a hybrid – half woman, half animal. ‘ (Mallan, op, cit. ).
She is powerful, insidious and filled with parody, and as Sells suggests, she is ‘a drag queen who destabilizes gender as she performs it. (Sells, 1995, 13), straying far from the canon of’. middle-aged beauty at its peak of sexuality and authority. ‘ (Bell, 1995, 108) mentioned earlier in this analysis. Comparatively to the aforementioned Maleficent, Ursula breaks all the boundaries of how a female antagonist resents herself to the audience. For instance, Maleficent is a physically elegant and an overall intimidating villain in appearance, whilst Ursula commands a more playfully ominious presence, something where Trite describes “… he mature female body as ominously menacing. ” (Trites, 1991, 149).
Russo continues this by arguing that “The grotesque body is the open, protruding, extended, secreting body, the body of becoming, process, and change [.. ] opposed to the classical body, which is monumental, static, closed, and sleek” (Russo, 1988, 219), and in the case of Ursula, is highly apparent in the way her appearance and her motives – subvert roles and expectations of a Disney feature. She mocks the classic Femme Fatale, an icon most famously played by – and probably most renowned for the trope – Jessica Rabbit, of the Warner Bros. nd Disney collaboration Who Framed Roger Rabbit? ‘ (1981).
In addition, this theme of subversion is even apparent in the protagonist Ariel, who rebels against her father’s wishes, a prominent patriarchal figure as the sea king Triton. However, as Zarranz comments, “It is Disney’s construction of Ursula the sea-witch that introduces subversive readings of the film in terms of sexual and power politics. (Zarranz, 2007, 56). Specifically, her motivations play right into Ariel’s naivety, giving her a simple price to pay and task to be with the one she loves; Her voice.
She subverts Ariel’s expectations with the simple words: “… It’s what I live for, to help unfortunate merfolk, like yourself, poor souls with no one else to turn to. ” (The Little Mermaid, 1989). Ursula paints herself as a misunderstood sea witch, resorting to merely helping those in the need of it. Yet unlike previous incarnations of the female antagonist, it is not a physical commodity like the envy of youth and beauty – as seen with Tremaine and The Evil Queen – it is something more akin to Maleficent. As Trites explains, “Ursula covets Triton’s power. (Trites, op. cit. ).
In other words, yet again we see woman scorned, acting out her revenge after a man’s actions have displaced her. A theme that is becoming more and more apparent in more modern Disney features, but perhaps not with as hard-hitting metaphors as we see in Maleficent (2014). It is important to note the sharp change in personality of female antagonists over the years. The Jealous ‘other’ mother figure, one fuelled by their own selfish desires for superficial attributes he protagonist may possess, such as beauty, innocence and youth.
In contrast to this, modern female antagonists are now using their own means and motivations to hinder the protagonist’s progress, fleshed out from their previously one- dimensional backstories. To illustrate, this use of more recognisable and personal forms of villainy is seen in the form of Mother Gothel, the primary antagonist of Tangled. (2010) It is certainly true that the villains in Disney’s past have been motivated by their own obsessions for aesthetic or superficial gain, and yet, Mother Gothel presents herself as an entirely different form of villain.
As Ella argues: “As a villain, Mother Gothel in Disney’s Tangled is unique. She’s not motivated by revenge, greed, or lust for power. Gothel, terrified of growing older, is motivated by fear. ” (Ella, 2012). The ‘fear – unlike early films where “Snow White’s beauty is the object of Queen’s envy… ” (Stringham, 2011, 637) and being displaced as The fairest of them all… ‘ (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1937), Mother Gothel’s fear comes from something more permanent; the passing of time. However, her villainy does not come into play from her motivations alone, it is how she treats the protagonist.
Unlike Lady Tremaine, whose possible abusive roots are alluded to off-screen, as Sapeni suggests, “One look from Lady Tremaine, and Cinderella falls into submission. It is my belief that Tremaine did something very traumatic to Cinderella… well beyond the psychological abuse. ” (Sapeni, 2012), the trademarks of psychological and emotional abuse are clear to see with Mother Gothel’s actions. She does very little compared to previous antagonists. For example, she does not kill Rapunzel’s parents, neither does kidnap and abuse her in sub-par conditions. In fact, it is rather the opposite. Her power is within her words and subtle actions.
It is the sheer fact that Gothel treats Rapunzel with love and as her own daughter is where her true villainy lies. It is in Basinger’s aforementioned ‘Destructive Mother’ and ‘otherness’ is what sets her apart from others. “Gothel constantly belittles and insults Rapunzel under the guise of motherly “teasing”. “You know what I see? ” [… ] “I see a strong, confident, beautiful young lady. Oh look, you’re here too. ” (porluciernagas, 2013). This sense of ‘otherness’ – as Ingaray describes – “the relationship between mother/daughter, daughter/mother constitutes an extremely explosive kernel in our societies. Ingaray, 1991, 86) is jarring to an audience, particularly to those who may have personally experienced such micro-aggressions themselves.
From such evidence, we could argue that Disney are now more willing to put such abusive behaviours front and centre in their female antagonists, instead of merely insinuating it, therefore creating a disturbing and all too real ‘problematic’ female that Western audiences can enjoy (or despise); a woman that destroys Disney’s subtexts of what is “… roper/improper for women, what is/is not the “natural order” [… and whether a “bad” character can or cannot be reformed or redeemed. ” (Davis, op. cit. ).
Likewise, problematic or otherwise, such characters merely existing are actively helping to destroy the notion of the “female/male = passive/active dichotomy. ” (TvTropes, 2011). With female antagonists, for example, demonstrating that they are highly capable of disgusting and irredeemable acts, such as Ragyo Kiryuin of the Japanese Animation Kill la Kill (2013) raping and molesting her daughter.
Kill la Kill: Episode 16, 2014) Similarly, while Western animation is slowly grasping the idea of the truly problematic female, Eastern animation – and ‘anime’ in general – have many examples of truly irredeemable antagonists, comparable in their villainy to the male, if not in some cases more so. Examples such as Balalaika – otherwise known as Sofiya Pavlovna, Russian leader of the Mafia unit Hotel Moscow of Black Lagoon (2002), Carmilla from Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust (2001), and Medusa Gorgon of Soul Eater (2008), provide memorable and threatening antagonists and anti-hero’s heavily driven by their own agency, motives and means.
Perhaps it is the much wider demographics of Eastern animation that allows such women to exist and flourish, as Odell and Le Blanc state, “Anime’s subject matter can range from imaginative fantasises to comedy, drama, horror, sport, science-fiction, romance, avant-garde and erotica and is aimed at audience that encompass all demographics, from schoolchildren to salarymen. ” (Odell and Le Blanc, 2013) Perhaps, overall, the change of the antagonist throughout history is due to it is an increase in demographic, and a feminist change in societal attitudes towards women.
As animation becomes a more globalised commodity, it is inevitable that Western Animation will soon open to a larger demographic. As Ebersol argues, “When analysed parallel to the feminist movements of the 20th and early 21st centuries, they highlight intriguing – and sometimes disturbing – truths about the world in which we live. ” (Ebersol, 2014). In other words, we are slowly but surely coming to terms with female abusers, the illusion of gender roles and stereotyping – right down to the problematic lements – are possibly not as binary as we once presumed, and because of this, we are slowly allowing ourselves to see a true ‘otherness’.
As Mallan explains, “… Women and girls continue to transgress the bounds of proper’ femininity and feminine decorum. Their bodies then become the sites of personal pleasure as well as offering a sight for other women and girls to engage in a voyeuristic delight in seeing the un/ slightly… ” (Mallan, op. cit. ) Perhaps, then, we could see the change in the female antagonist as one of a social commentary; society has slowly began to accept the ‘monstrous other that women are capable of being…?